On June 22, voters in Manhattan will head to the polls to make several monumental decisions. At the top of the ballot, of course, will be the Democratic primary for mayor, where the winner could end up governing for the next eight years. Voters will also weigh in on who to choose for city comptroller, another post that often serves as a springboard for a mayoral run.
But arguably the most importance primary is occurring below them both, garnering relatively little media attention: the race for Manhattan District Attorney. Cy Vance Jr., the controversial incumbent, is not seeking re-election, and eight candidates are vying to replace him.
There are many reasons the primary is of great consequence. In overwhelmingly Democratic Manhattan, the victor is assured the office. Since the 1970s, there have been only two other Manhattan DA’s: Vance and the late Robert Morgenthau, who retired after 2009.
With a budget nearing $170 million, the office has a vast jurisdiction, prosecuting the wealthy and powerful on Wall Street, along with the poor and the vulnerable. Right now, Vance’s prosecutors have reportedly entered the final stages of a criminal tax investigation into Donald Trump’s long-serving chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, setting up the possibility he could face charges in the summer.
All of the candidates have promised to continue the investigation, vowing to be tough on Trump and his associates. Yet while this is the reason many voters may care about the race — the next Democrat will be in position, perhaps, to drag the former president into a courtroom — it has far greater implications for the thousands of people, many of them Black and Latino, who are prosecuted for petty crimes every year. For defense attorneys and criminal justice reformers, Vance’s legacy is punitive. He has sought stiff sentences against poor defendants and pushed his attorneys, as often as possible, to go to trial to win convictions.
Many of the candidates have criticized Vance and vowed to overhaul the office in the mode of progressive DA’s across America, like Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner and San Francisco’s Chesa Boudin. Some want to slash the office budget in half, abolish cash bail and pre-trial detention, and reduce the overall number of prosecutions.
[related_posts post_id_1=”735459″ /]
The dynamics of the race, however, may not favor the progressive candidates — Tahanie Aboushie, Eliza Orlins, Dan Quart, and Alvin Bragg — because, unlike the mayoral race, there is no ranked-choice voting. A DA race is run under state rules, not municipal law, so voters will only pick one candidate. There is a very real threat, at this point, that candidates with varying left platforms could split the vote, allowing a more conservative contender to win.
And one of them looms over the field: Tali Farhadian Weinstein, a former Brooklyn and federal prosecutor. Married to Boaz Weinstein, a multimillionaire hedge fund manager, Farhadian Weinstein has far outspent the field, raising millions from Wall Street megadonors while pouring $8 million of her own cash into the campaign.
Farhadian Weinstein, at the minimum, would be a prosecutor in the mold of Vance and progressives fear she may tug the office further to the right. Running with the endorsement of some establishment Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, Farhadian Weinstein has repeatedly warned about the rising number of shootings and murders. She is one of the only candidates who will not rule out entering into information-sharing agreements with federal agencies like ICE and Homeland Security Investigation. Reformers worry she will be too close to the financial sector to effectively prosecute white-collar crime.
Polling in the race has been scant. One recent poll, from the left-leaning firm Data for Progress, showed a dead heat between Farhadian Weinstein and Bragg, a former prosecutor in the state attorney general’s office who was endorsed by former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, Congressman Jerry Nadler, and the New York Times. A Harlem native, Bragg speaks openly about being a victim of the criminal justice system as a Black man. He made a name for himself seeking full transparency into how the NYPD handled Eric Garner’s death.
Bragg is a former prosecutor, not a public defender or a civil rights attorney like two candidates running to the left of him, Orlins and Aboushi. But Zephyr Teachout, a law professor and prominent progressive activist who supports Bragg, has urged backers of other candidates to consolidate around him.
Some progressives, however, reacted with anger at the suggestion. “This is not your finest hour. Your point of view is myopic, privileged, and just plain wrong,” tweeted Cynthia Nixon, the actress and activist backing Aboushi. “Your song is ugly & out of tune. You should do yourself & everyone else a favor and stop singing it.”
Teachout, though, may have a point with only days left in the race. In the 2020 presidential primary, Joe Biden crushed Bernie Sanders by winning the endorsements of his top Democratic rivals. No such consolidation appears to be in the works now, with the candidates to the left of Bragg arguing, publicly and privately, they still have a path to victory. Without RCV, it will be possible to know the outcome on Election Night — and whether Nixon or Teachout, in all their ardor, are proven right. ❖
This story was updated on June 18: Zephyr Teachout says she specifically asked no candidates to drop out, only that the supporters of other candidates back her candidate, Bragg.
If you’ve waited until the last minute to figure out who to vote for mayor, the Village Voice has you covered with our handy cheat sheet. We summarized the eight top Democratic candidates’ positions in three major topic areas: public safety, housing, and the economy.
Before we jump in, here’s a quick who’s who of candidates:
Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president who draws on his experience as a Black NYPD officer; Kathryn Garcia, the former sanitation commissioner who quit after fallout over budget cuts; Maya Wiley, ex-ACLU lawyer and former counsel to Mayor de Blasio; Andrew Yang, an ex-presidential hopeful turned mayoral front runner who’s gotten all kinds of press;Scott Stringer, the anti-de Blasio city comptroller who’s fending off allegations of sexual harassment;Dianne Morales, the far-left candidate who’s battling protests inside her campaign; Wall Street executive Ray McGuire; and Shaun Donovan, Obama’s former housing secretary, whose rich father made a huge splash in the race.
Hopefully, this cheat sheet will help you decide who to rank where on your ballot. (We are focusing on the top eight vote-getters in recent polls. Below they are listed in the order in which they appear on the ballot.) Early voting for primary elections will be open until June 20 (after that, voters will cast their ballots on Election Day, June 22).
¶ Do they support “defunding” the NYPD?
Dianne Morales: Yes. Morales is the only frontrunner who has embraced the “defund police” slogan (it’s literally on her website). She wants to cut the NYPD budget by $3 billion and remove officers from schools, traffic enforcement, and other instances where she believes armed police presence is unnecessary. She proposes redistributing funds to a Community First Responders Department, independent from the NYPD and staffed with personnel trained in trauma-informed intervention.
Scott Stringer: Sort of? As comptroller, Stringer criticized de Blasio’s NYPD budget allocation amid summer protests, calling to slash $1.1 billion from the department to reinvest in community services. But as a candidate he has shied away from the “defund” slogan — there’s no mention of the $1 billion cut on his campaign website or in his public safety report. An investigation revealed that Stringer audited the NYPD twice over his eight-year tenure (for comparison, he audited the Housing Authority 17 times). He favors shifting funding toward social services and strengthening the Civilian Complaint Review Board.
Ray McGuire: No. McGuire is explicitly against it, arguing that the city’s budget ($98.6 billion for the 2022 fiscal year so far) barely contributed funds for the NYPD, which has a proposed budget of $5.4 billion. Instead, McGuire wants better training for the police force; continued use of the experimental ShotSpotter program, the gunshot-detection system which alerts officers of possible gun-related activity; and a 24/7 emergency social services bureau.
Maya Wiley: Yes. Wiley has kept an arm’s-length from the “defund” slogan (opting for the term “right-sizing” instead) but regularly pushes concerns on excessive policing. She pledges to cut the NYPD’s budget by at least $1 billion each year to fund alternatives to traditional policing. Wiley was chair of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the oversight body for the NYPD, but some say she did little to reform the sleepy agency during her year there.
Kathryn Garcia: No. Garcia is a proponent of police reform, proposing improved mechanisms for transparent discipline against officers and implementing new training. She’s mentioned investing in the NYPD’s Gun Violence Suppression Division to combat gun violence and wants to reassign more officers to the neighborhood policing unit.
Eric Adams: No. Adams, a former NYPD captain, has repeatedly argued against taking money from the department (and drew heat from activists after suggesting that affluent white millennials were leading the “defund” movement). He’s acknowledged abusive policing, having been beaten by police as a teenager, and pushes for reform through improved training, better accountability systems, and a new version of the disbanded plainclothes Anti-Crime unit. While he’s painted himself as the public-safety candidate, don’t expect him to give up packing once he’s mayor.
Shaun Donovan: Maybe. Donovan wants to refocus police priorities on violent crimes but hasn’t stated he would cut the NYPD’s budget. He has pledged, by his second year, to invest $500 million each year in community-focused public safety initiatives, in part by “redirecting funds allocated to law enforcement and corrections,” which includes agencies beyond the NYPD.
Andrew Yang: No. Yang has stated that “defunding” is “the wrong approach for New York City,” and proposes staffing up certain divisions to improve the city’s low-solve rate. He’s argued for diversifying recruiting inside the NYPD (asking New Yorkers to sign up for the police force during a televised debate) and proposed stronger civilian oversight by appointing a civilian police commissioner.
[related_posts post_id_1=”735333″ /]
¶ What are they going to do about rising housing costs and homelessness?
Dianne Morales: Morales’s proposal mixes moderate fixes like converting unopened hotels and vacant lots into affordable housing with radical ideas such as replacing the Public Housing Authority with a fully tenant-run management body. She proposes reallocating the $3 billion annual shelter budget toward preventive measures against evictions. But housing advocates have been critical of Morales’s ties to Phipps Housing, an affordable housing developer and one of New York City’s worst landlords.
Scott Stringer: Stringer tries to establish himself as a “watchdog” to de Blasio, criticizing the mayor’s appetite for rezoning low-income neighborhoods to build more affordable housing and emphasizing his record auditing New York City’s Housing Authority. Stringer promises to build 10,000 affordable housing units each year, requiring every new building to allocate 25% of units for affordable housing, and pledges that he will oppose “developer-driven” rezonings.
Ray McGuire: McGuire’s business background is apparent in proposals to reduce construction costs by streamlining approvals and a new tax credit to incentivize construction of senior affordable housing. He wants to invest $1.5 billion in public housing annually and give tenants more control over how those funds are spent through signed contracts with the city.
Maya Wiley: Wiley’s housing policy centers on measures that get at root causes of the crisis, such as creating a “universal community care” ecosystem. It’s an ambitious plan: In addition to committing $2 billion for public housing, she promises to guarantee that New Yorkers making 50% or less of Area Median Income won’t pay more than 30% of their income on rent.
Kathryn Garcia: Garcia’s housing policy is a mixed bag; she wants to move the city away from shelters to permanent housing planning by building 50,000 “deeply” affordable housing units, but suggests creating 24-hour drop-in centers with bathrooms and other services for unhoused New Yorkers. She also supports NYCHA’s Blueprint For Change plan, which tenant advocates have criticized as a step toward privatization.
Eric Adams: Adams wants more housing — and quickly, promising to expedite the city’s initiative to create 15,000 units of supportive housing in 15 years to 10 years. He has low-income renters in mind, with proposals such as streamlining rent-relief applications and adjusting housing vouchers based on market rate, and cites nonprofit Fountain House as a model for wrap-around social services. But Adams has a cozy relationship with developers, raising nearly a quarter-million dollars in donations from real estate stakeholders.
Shaun Donovan: Donovan loves to remind everyone of his stint as President Obama’s housing secretary, and (to a lesser extent) his tenure as housing commissioner under Mayor Bloomberg. A look at his track record brings up mixed reviews. Much of Donovan’s plan relies on state support, like pushing the state to establish a State Public Housing Preservation Trust and to increase annual spending on emergency rental assistance.
Andrew Yang: Yang’s housing approach seems focused on improving existing mechanisms: He would convert the city’s unopened hotels into affordable housing buildings and, as a big believer in Community Land Trusts (CLTs), invest more in existing CLTs. He’s committed to investing $4 billion annually in building affordable and supportive housing.
[related_posts post_id_1=”735149″ /]
¶ How are they going to recover jobs and businesses for New Yorkers?
Dianne Morales: Morales has made investing in small and mid-size businesses the center of her economic recovery platform. She wants to eliminate massive tax breaks for wealthy corporations operating in the city and has committed to investing at least $1 billion in a participatory city-wide People’s Budget Project.
Scott Stringer: The city comptroller proposes a $1 billion NYC Recovery Now Fund for small business grants up to $100,000, which can be used to pay off back rent and rehire former employees. Stringer also proposes developing a stronger workforce pipeline for CUNY graduates and an affordable childcare plan for families with toddlers.
Ray McGuire: McGuire’s “Comeback Plan” zeroes in on supporting the city’s small businesses. He wants to bring back 50,000 jobs through items such as wage subsidies — covering half of wages for small businesses over a year — and expanding small business owners’ access to loans through community bank investments.
Maya Wiley: Through her “New Deal New York” plan, Wiley wants to invest $10 billion in a public works program, with a target of creating 100,000 new jobs over a five-year period. Wiley pushes for a “care-based economy” through $5,000 grants for high-need care workers and building community care centers.
Kathryn Garcia: As the “fixer” candidate, Garcia leans into cutting red tape that impacts small business owners, proposing an all-in-one small business permit and a new program offering zero-interest microloans. The highlight of her economic recovery plan is her promise to support working parents and guardians in families earning less than $70,000 a year, with free childcare for children up to three years old.
Eric Adams: Adams wants to create jobs by investing in green infrastructure — establishing the city as the “wind power hub” of the East Coast — and attract businesses by expanding the Relocation Employment Assistance Program of tax credits for businesses if they open in certain neighborhoods. He’s also focused on work development for youth, with a proposal to expand the Summer Youth Employment Program to operate year-round.
Shaun Donovan: Donovan’s economic recovery plan centers on rebuilding the city’s strongest revenue sector — entertainment and nightlife — and work development for the city’s future generation, committing to creating 500,000 jobs in his first term. He promises 10,000 internship placements within the first years of his mayorship through a skills-based training program that guarantees placement for public school and CUNY students, and an NYC Job Corps to train potential workers in high-growth job industries.
When Bill de Blasio first ran for mayor in 2013, betting that a progressive, anti-Bloomberg Democrat could vault into City Hall, his education platform was clear: charter schools would not have it so easy when he won.
“Starting January, Eva Moskowitz cannot continue to have the run of the place,” de Blasio fumed that year, referring to the most powerful charter school executive in the city. “Just because someone is politically connected and has a lot of money behind them, they don’t tell the public school system what to do.”
Eight years later, Eva Moskowitz is still the CEO of Success Academy, the large and highly influential charter school network, and her name is nowhere to be found in the mayoral race. Instead of left-leaning Democrats taking turns promising to block the expansion of charters, the top candidates in this primary are taking a very different tact — deference, or even praise, for the privately-run, publicly-funded schools.
“I want to make New York City public schools great but charters offer us an opportunity,” Kathryn Garcia, who has emerged as a top Democratic contender, told the Voice. “They can be labs for experimentation.”
The changing tune on charters is one of the more remarkable policy turnarounds in a race in which the candidates, otherwise, have proposed many progressive programs that would expand on de Blasio’s vision: free schooling before pre-K, public banking, and more affordable housing. Traditionally, many left-leaning Democrats and union activists have reviled charter schools because they don’t have to recognize teachers’ unions, unlike ordinary public schools, and can easily block the admission of students with disabilities and language difficulties. Since charter schools co-locate with public schools in the same school building, fierce battles have erupted over space and supplies.
Defenders of charter schools argue they offer an alternative education where public schools are struggling and allow poorer, nonwhite students to enjoy the privileges of wealthier peers in private schools. Many charter schools in New York City operate in predominately Black and Latino neighborhoods, where they enjoy support among parents. Students who remain in charters perform well on state exams.
Some liberal, technocratic Democrats have embraced charters — Barack Obama was a supporter — but they remain a favorite cause of Wall Street, with billionaires in New York and nationally funding their growth. Right-wing, charter-backing billionaires, including hedge funders Kenneth Griffin and Daniel Loeb, are lavishly funding super PAC’s for two of the leading mayoral contenders, Eric Adams and Andrew Yang.
Garcia, the New York Times-endorsed former Department of Sanitation commissioner, hasn’t yet received the same attention from the billionaire class but has vowed she’d fight to raise the cap on the number of charter schools in the five boroughs. This stance has some Democratic insiders speculating that Garcia may get assistance soon from charter school backers.
Adams, the Brooklyn borough president who has led in the polls of late, is a de Blasio ally and a pro-union Democrat who otherwise shares an affinity for charters. As recently as 2019, Adams spoke at a rally in support of Success Academy, and told the Voice he would not move to curb the expansion of charters if he enters office next year.
“I am a believer in scaling up excellence. That’s what I’m a believer in,” Adams said. “We only have a small number of good, solid charter schools. So what I’m going to do as mayor, I’m not going to engage in the ‘adult’ conversation of naming schools. I’m going to engage in the ‘children’ conversation of scaling up excellence.”
And Andrew Yang, the entrepreneur and former presidential candidate, has called himself “pro-charter” in the past and said he would, if elected, try to open charter schools that the city and state have already authorized. “I’ve committed to using the already authorized charters that right now are not being utilized. That’s the current plan,” he said.
Through his consultant, Bradley Tusk, Yang’s affinity for charters may be even deeper. Tusk once worked for Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire mayor who oversaw an explosion of charter schools in the five boroughs and actively encouraged their growth.
[related_posts post_id_1=”411464″ /]
Why are charter schools suddenly popular in this mayoral race? Theories abound.
The young progressives and socialists hostile to charter schools were not yet in position to mount credible mayoral bids. And the end of the Donald Trump era has allowed charter-friendly Democrats to be a little less shy, since Trump’s Education secretary, Betsy DeVos, was a fierce charter school backer.
Before Trump took office, Governor Andrew Cuomo was a vocal ally of the charter sector, but grew more muted over the last few years as the privately-run schools became associated with Trump’s education policy.
James Merriman, the chief executive officer of the New York City Charter School Center, agreed that Trump’s exit — as well as the loss of Republican power in New York State — has buoyed the movement’s political prospects, which were often bound up in whether conservatives could decide education policy in New York.
Merriman also argued that, quite simply, there are now too many charter schools in the five boroughs for the unorthodox education approach to be vilified any longer. “The charter sector is bigger and harder to ignore,” Merriman said. “There wouldn’t be a single charter school around if no one wanted to go to them.”
Before the late 1990s, charter schools didn’t exist in New York at all. When Bloomberg took power in 2002, he committed to a rapid expansion of the schools, benefiting from a Republican governor in Albany who was also interested in seeing them thrive. There were 17 charter schools the year Bloomberg entered office; there were 183, in 2013, when he left.
De Blasio promised a charter crackdown, but the industry fared better than expected thanks to a far more powerful ally in Cuomo. In 2014, de Blasio’s first year, he bitterly clashed with Moskowitz, a former colleague of his in the City Council, when he rejected co-locations for three Success Academy schools that Bloomberg had rubberstamped.
Moskowitz, along with the private equity-backed charter lobby group Families for Excellent Schools, spent millions in television ads against de Blasio and staged large rallies with parents, schoolchildren, and politicians. Cuomo, meanwhile, would engineer a new law unlike any other in America: for the first time, the city government would have to pay the rent of all charter schools or find them free space in available buildings.
The battle wounded de Blasio, and he never quite took on the charter sector, head-on, again. The law remains on the books and has not been repealed in Albany, even with progressive Democrats in power. Under de Blasio, charters have enjoyed steady growth: there are now 290, which is the current state-mandated cap. Cuomo, the charter industry, and Garcia all want to see this cap raised.
Even progressives in the mayoral race are no longer speaking in pointed terms about charter schools. One of them, Dianne Morales, founded a charter school herself.
Maya Wiley, who has been endorsed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, refused to state outright she backed ending the state law requiring New York City to pay the rent of all charters. “Every last kid is our kid, period. Let’s just start there,” Wiley said. “We know there are many things we have to fix about how we’re doing space in this city. We also have to make sure we’re not overpaying.”
For the Department of Education, the rent requirement has led to escalating costs. Of the DOE’s roughly $28 billion budget, more than $2.4 billion is spent now on operating aid for charters. New York City, thanks in part to Cuomo’s hatred of de Blasio, is the only district in the state that does not receive state dollars as reimbursement as city payments to charters increase. These numbers are expected to grow as charter schools throughout the city increase their enrollments in the coming years.
The United Federation of Teachers, the chief antagonist of the charter industry, is backing Scott Stringer, a charter critic in the mold of de Blasio, for mayor. But Stringer, besieged by a sexual assault scandal, has not been able to command any kind of polling lead in the race. When asked about the current popularity of charter schools in the Democratic primary, Mike Mulgrew, the current president of the UFT, had a simpler theory: money. “The Garcia campaign was almost broke. Yang and Adams, this was the easiest way to raise money,” Mulgrew said. “This is about some really unscrupulous people donating and trying to get control of City Hall once again.” ❖
June 22 is a big day for New York City: In primary elections for the largest government turnover in a decade, roughly two-thirds of the City Council is up for grabs, along with the comptroller, four borough presidents, district attorneys, and, of course, the next mayor.
But if this year is anything like previous years, few New Yorkers will show up and vote. As data makes clear, the New Yawk brand of loud and opinionated hasn’t quite translated to high voter turnout. In fact, New York consistently ranks among states with the worst turnout rates in the country. Combined with debates over its new ranked-choice voting system — which may turn off some voters even more — this year could see the low turnout trend continue, meaning the next mayor and other elected positions could be selected by just a sliver of the city’s population.
City Hall and local organizations are combining efforts to educate, engage, and, hopefully, persuade New Yorkers to vote in greater numbers this year. In April, the mayor’s office announced a $15 million voter outreach initiative under DemocracyNYC, the city’s civic engagement arm, to encourage New Yorkers to head to the polls. A portion of that has gone to educating constituents, including launching an interactive app, available in 16 languages, that helps voters practice ranked-choice voting on pretend ballots to decide designations like “favorite NYC landmark” and view how votes are tallied.
“The reality is a lot of New Yorkers just have so much else on their minds that they haven’t really focused on [ranked-choice voting] and the fact that this important election is coming up,” said Laura Wood, New York City’s Chief Democracy Officer. “Our mission is to make sure … New Yorkers have that information going into the June primary.”
New York City’s Poor Voter Turnout
In 2016, there were 4.9 million registered voters in New York City. In the following year’s general election, Mayor Bill de Blasio clinched his second term with just 726,361 votes. That means only 14 percent of people who could vote, voted for de Blasio (it’s maybe part of why he’s so unpopular despite having been made mayor twice).
Last year, with a highly consequential presidential election at stake, the city saw a slight bump in voter turnout compared to 2016. According to a voter analysis report by the Campaign Finance Board, nearly 62 percent of city voters turned out in November with the biggest overall increase among younger voters ages 18 to 29.
But voting tends to nose-dive after national elections and that could happen in the upcoming primaries. There’s no single reason behind New York’s underwhelming turnout numbers, but one that everyone seems to agree on is the state’s outdated voting laws which, intentionally or not, affect voting accessibility. And the harder it is for people to vote, the less likely they will.
“Up until a couple of years ago, it was kind of hard to vote,” said Jan Combopiano, senior policy director at the Brooklyn Voters Alliance, an independent organization that works on voting access. New York did not allow early voting until recently (it was passed into law in 2019) and technically still doesn’t allow no-excuse absentee ballots (which have been temporarily allowed during the pandemic). Rigid rules around designated poll sites and online voter registration are other issues that Combopiano says can make voters less likely to participate. “We’ve never had a municipal election under these circumstances before where we did have early voting, where we did have easier access to an absentee ballot,” she said. “So we’re hoping to see a change in this election.”
Omar Suárez, director of partnerships and outreach for NYCVotes, says it’s all about messaging. “We don’t give local government the same sense of urgency that we do when it comes to national politics,” said Suárez, noting drop-off levels after presidential elections. “Something that is a constant focus of ours is, how can we retain those voters?”
As the Campaign Finance Board’s voter outreach initiative, NYCVotes is allocating $2 million to its get-out-the-vote efforts this year which includes town halls and voter training sessions. Additionally, a board spokesperson confirmed a portion of the $15 million from the mayor’s office will go towards amplifying NYCVotes’s ads and translating educational materials, but did not specify how much.
New York’s New System: Ranked-Choice Voting
With New York in pandemic recovery and with so many important city-level jobs on the line, this year’s local elections are a huge deal. The city’s primaries, in particular, are considered to hold more weight than the general elections given that 3,376,341 of active voters are registered Democrats (by contrast, just 501,848 are registered Republicans).
But this year’s outreach campaigns have another challenge: educating New Yorkers about the new ranked-choice voting system, which was voted into law through a 2019 ballot referendum. Using this new system, voters can rank up to five candidates in a number of races, including for mayor, comptroller, borough presidents, city council, and public advocate. If no candidate achieves a majority of votes, the candidate with the lowest tally is eliminated. But those votes won’t go to waste; instead, in the next round of counting, citizens whose number one choice has been eliminated will have their votes counted towards their second-ranked candidate. The cycle continues until a clear majority winner is determined.
[related_posts post_id_1=”734331″ /]
Ranked-choice voting was used for the first time in New York City in February, during a special election to fill seats for City Council Districts 24 and 31, the latter formerly occupied by Queens Borough President Donovan Richards (he is seeking reelection against four other Democratic candidates in June). To educate constituents on ranked-choice voting, his office created a Civic Engagement Committee made up of members from community organizations, civic associations, and individual volunteers.
The committee, one of the lead partners with DemocracyNYC, is now using lessons from their previous ranked-choice outreach efforts ahead of June, focusing on in-person campaigns to push voter turnout in neighborhoods like Flushing, Jackson Heights, Jamaica, and Far Rockaway.
“We know it’s important that we have communities of color, other marginalized communities, who oftentimes are not coming out to vote at the rate we’d like to see,” said Franck D. Joseph III, Richards’s chief of staff who oversees the committee. “We want to make sure we’re going into those communities and actively ensuring that folks understand what ranked-choice voting is, and they know how to fill out their ballot.”
Research shows clear benefits to ranked-choice voting: low-visibility candidates have more chances of staying in the race while voters don’t have their votes wasted. But the new system has faced opposition, with some lawmakers questioning the city’s readiness for it and an impending lawsuit to halt the use of ranked-choice voting altogether.
Anecdotally, some voters have shown disinterest in ranked-choice voting and many still don’t get how ranked-choice voting works. “One of the things we hear is people trying to game the system,” Combopiano shared, citing her organization’s weekly public trainings. “‘Oh, I don’t want this candidate to win. Should I mark them fifth?’ And we’re like — No! If you don’t want them to win, don’t put them on the ballot.”
Despite challenges, a survey from the special elections shows a promising response from voters toward ranked-choice voting. Of 635 surveyed voters who participated in that election, over 95 percent found filling out the ranked-choice voting ballot to be either very or somewhat simple. About 61 percent chose to rank multiple candidates on their ballots with 31 percent ranking up to the maximum five candidates. Joseph III views arguments around ranked-choice voting as a normal response to a new tool. For him, it reflects a lack of understanding about ranked-choice voting more than voter apathy.
“I think once they get past the confusion, it really opens up the scope,” he said, “because we all know there’s no one perfect candidate for any office.” ❖
The news, when it arrived, was too stunning to quite believe: New York State had fallen 89 people short, in the U.S. Census count, of keeping all of its congressional seats.
Recriminations, both online and in person, immediately spread across the state: laments about how one apartment building, a schoolyard, or a trendy bar on a good night would pack in at least that many people. Rage built against those who fled the city throughout the pandemic, beginning in March 2020 — the Hamptons and Hudson Valley dwellers who inevitably, while sipping white wine on their patios, didn’t bother to fill out their census forms.
Within the world of politics, where blame flies easily but courage can be in short supply, many began to say out loud what they had uttered, in quiet, for months — that scandal-scarred Andrew Cuomo should be blamed.
“Put simply, the governor did not prioritize the census,” said State Senator Zellnor Myrie, a Brooklyn Democrat who was highly outspoken about getting a proper count last year. “This was something, if the Cuomo administration took seriously, there’s little doubt in my mind we would not have lost a member of Congress.”
Every 10 years, the census is a notable, if rote, affair, with cheery canvassers knocking on doors and exhortations coming from mayors, governors, and even the president to get everyone counted. The stakes are incredibly high, because population counts determine federal funding for county governments, cities, and states. And the allocation of 435 congressional seats is decided by the census numbers: States that gain in population win seats at the expense of those that stagnate or shrink.
More congressional seats mean more elected officials to represent towns and cities, advocating for funding on their behalf in Washington. On a local level, having additional representatives can make it easier for constituent complaints to be heard in a timely manner. In the 1940s, New York had as many as 45 members in its House delegation, with a large number concentrated in the five boroughs. There was a time when a member of Congress could represent a district not much larger than what was drawn for a state legislator.
Soon, New York will have just 26 members of Congress.
The 2020 census was the most tumultuous of any in modern history. There was a global pandemic that halted all in-person canvassing for months. President Donald Trump, obsessed with adding an unprecedented citizenship question to the census, erected tremendous roadblocks for immigrant-heavy, Democrat-dominated cities.
To make matters even more challenging, the Trump administration wrapped up the census early, in October. All the chaos had helped undermine the census count, which still showed New York posting a surprising population gain overall but losing seats to states that gained more. Had 89 more people been counted, New York would have kept all of its seats, as Minnesota did.
But according to advocates and census observers, New York City, which allocated $40 million to census operations, ran a robust canvassing and advertising campaign around getting residents counted. At the beginning of 2019, Mayor Bill de Blasio named Julie Menin, who had helmed a couple of city agencies, to direct the city’s census program. Starting so early allowed the city to determine which community-based organizations would receive funding for conducting outreach to neighborhoods where residents — because of immigration status or lower likelihood of being at home — could be more difficult to count.
Meanwhile, city officials hoped to coordinate with Cuomo, who has a notoriously testy relationship with de Blasio. In 2019, Menin traveled to Albany to meet with the Cuomo loyalist charged with overseeing the statewide census operation, Richard Tobe.
According to Menin, Tobe and other officials involved in the census lacked the power to do what was needed: Release the money that state legislators had already allocated to ensure that community-based organizations across the city and state could begin work on the census as soon as possible.
Cuomo, for reasons never made clear, refused to release any new state aid for the census in 2019, although de Blasio had already distributed the funds under his control. More curiously, an announcement in late 2019 from Cuomo’s office that touted $60 million in funding for the census was largely illusionary: only $20 million was explicitly new state money, with the rest drawn from already existing state agency resources. The $20 million paled in comparison to what some other states spent on the census. California, for example, allocated $100 million in new funding.
At the minimum, advocates and organizations involved in the census hoped to see that $20 million in new funding in 2019 or early 2020, when the groundwork for a massive counting operation had to be laid.
“It was a highly frustrating time,” said Meeta Anand, the Census 2020 Senior Fellow at the New York Immigration Coalition. “Compare it to New York City, where the money went out pre-pandemic and allowed groups the time to hire staff, to get their educational materials together, and to start forming inroads into communities.”
Phone calls, letters, and complaints from elected officials and advocates did not move Cuomo, who said very little about the census publicly. As 2019 turned to 2020, even the paltry $20 million Cuomo had dedicated to the census would remain in the hands of his administration. Menin, who assumed Cuomo did not want to work with de Blasio, was still hoping for a coordinated effort of some kind. If state aid wouldn’t directly flow to City Hall, she said, the Cuomo-controlled Empire State Development Corporation could enter into an agreement with City Hall to manage census outreach.
“The city has a rather protracted procurement and grant process — you can’t just snap your fingers and give money out. It takes a tremendous amount of time to put it into effect,” said Menin, who left the de Blasio administration recently to run for City Council. “The state needed to be doing it around the same time we did it. I can count on one hand the number of conversations I was able to have with the state on the census.”
The census would then face a catastrophic new challenge that few saw coming: the coronavirus. The first COVID-19 case, confirmed in March, came just as the census operation was ramping up for person-to-person contact. Canvassers had planned to walk the streets and climb up and down the stairwells of large apartment buildings; all of that, in the emerging crisis, had to be put on hold.
Few New Yorkers, fearing the mass death to come, were thinking about the census. But organizers thought they had a new weapon in their arsenal: Cuomo’s enormously popular televised press briefings.
Each day for 111 consecutive days, Cuomo spoke to a spellbound local and national audience about the coronavirus, soothing them as tens of thousands of people died across the state. The briefings helped cover up Cuomo’s profound policy failures, but they at least gave him a remarkable pulpit from which to speak about important issues.
“The governor was commanding historic television ratings and the entire country was glued to his daily press briefings. He had the opportunity, every single day, to say, ‘here’s what the deal is, go fill out the census’ and tie it directly to what it means to our political future,” said Amit Bagga, who served as the deputy director of New York City’s census outreach. “He failed to do it. It was a dereliction of duty.”
Indeed, Cuomo spent months discussing his daughter’s boyfriend, the meatballs at dinner, his rivalry with his CNN host brother, and a variety of other offbeat topics in his briefings — in addition to crucial updates on hospitalizations, deaths, and ongoing restrictions. Virtually absent was any talk about the census.
No one beyond Cuomo’s inner circle is quite sure why. Richard Azzopardi, a senior advisor to Cuomo, refused to answer questions about why Cuomo did not talk extensively about the census on television, and why he decided to withhold $20 million in census funding until well into 2020.
“New York did better than the experts predicted and our population count went up,” he said in a statement to the Voice. “It’s unbelievable that some politicians are willing to forget how many obstacles the Trump administration put in place — during a pandemic no less — in order to score cheap political points.”
In late summer, with the census count entering its final stages — and with barely any prior warning to officials across New York State — Cuomo decided to release the $20 million. Beyond New York City, funding was sent to the offices of the county executives, who are the highest-ranking politicians in their jurisdictions.
In New York City, where power is consolidated in the mayor’s office, the Cuomo administration decided to funnel the city’s share to the five borough presidents’ offices. Census organizers were perplexed. The relatively powerless BP offices were not set up to administer a census count — City Hall, which had placed Menin in charge at the start of 2019, had a full-fledged operation in place.
With the money disbursed this way in August 2020, just two months before counting would end, it was of little use to organizers. They were left to fume over what could have been.
John Mollenkopf, a professor of political science and sociology at CUNY’s Center for Urban Research, praised the city’s counting efforts, though he noted that whatever state funding went out did not get to city organizations. “Some groups that did a lot of work got no funds,” he said.
No advocate, staffer, or Democratic elected official could offer a single theory explaining Cuomo’s lack of interest in the census. He was not yet distracted by his myriad scandals — the investigations into his alleged predatory sexual behavior and cover-up of nursing home data didn’t come until 2021 — and COVID-19 wasn’t spreading rapidly in New York until 2020, long after the New York City efforts were established and funded.
Cuomo has a long history of undermining Democrats — he went back on his very first campaign pledge and allowed Republicans to gerrymander districts a decade ago — and his disinterest in the census, which theoretically could have allowed for gains in deep-blue New York City, fits this pattern.
But even Cuomo’s most aggressive critics aren’t sure why his administration did so little, since any kind of undercount would damage the entire state. Stanching the decades-long bleeding of House seats was a goal that virtually all in the political establishment shared.
“It’s not a sexy topic until something goes wrong and here we are on the other side of it,” said Myrie, the state senator. “We could’ve been in a better position. Cuomo didn’t care.” ❖
On June 22, the next mayor of New York City will be crowned. Yes, this is a Democratic primary and there will, technically, be a general election, but the days of Mike Bloomberg spending tens of millions to bludgeon Democrats are no more. If you’re a registered Democrat, congrats—you’ll have a say in the city’s future. If not? You’re out of luck.
What to make of this sleepy race, lost in the shuffle of endless Andrew Cuomo scandals and that never-quite-over global pandemic? It’s still wide open. No Democrat has captured a majority of hearts and minds in any single poll. Your consistent leader is Andrew Yang, the former presidential candidate and entrepreneur, who is no longer promising a thousand bucks to everyone—with a municipal budget, he can’t—but who wants to bring a public bank and some other goodies (a geothermal power plant) to the five boroughs.
But the field is starting to gang up on Yang. The No. 2, and the person who could still win it all, is Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a combative former police captain with a knack for soundbites. Rounding out the top tier are a couple of liberals, City Comptroller Scott Stringer and former de Blasio counsel Maya Wiley, who are chasing the MSNBC set and maybe a few socialists.
And then there’s ranked-choice voting. In June, New Yorkers get to rank their top five picks, and if no one hits 50%—don’t worry, they won’t—lower-finishing candidates are automatically eliminated, dispersing their votes to whoever is ahead. The process repeats until a winner emerges. Sound good?
Yang has said he’d make Kathryn Garcia, another candidate who served under de Blasio, as sanitation commissioner, his second choice. Garcia hasn’t returned the favor. A surging left-wing candidate, Dianne Morales, has been courted by Stringer and Wiley for some alliance making—but maybe she leapfrogs them both. Wiley already asked voters to rank Morales No. 2 behind her. Ray McGuire, a millionaire business executive, hopes to spend the field into submission, though he lacks Bloomberg’s world-historical billions. And Shaun Donovan, who ran agencies under Bloomberg and Barack Obama, is counting on being everyone’s second choice.
How to sort through it all? The Voice, in our handy chart below, has you more than covered. Find your best bet for each category. ❖
“Zoom is not our friend. I just want to be very clear.”
Andrew Yang was reflecting on the joy of campaigning, even during a pandemic. He was getting to know his city so well. People were thrilled to see him in the streets.
The front-running mayoral candidate, speaking to reporters in Harlem on a frigid March day, seemed also to be growing aware of all he would probably miss: the teeming block parties, the raucous parades, the subway platforms thronged at rush hour.
“Most New Yorkers are sick and tired of Zoom,” Yang added. “I think a lot of the country is sick and tired of Zoom.”
Though relatively few New Yorkers may be aware of this fact, they will probably be choosing their mayor for the next eight years three months from now, on June 22. In heavily Democratic New York City, the primary winner will steamroll over nominal GOP opposition. Incumbents usually get re-elected — Bill de Blasio, for all his challenges, easily did.
But this mayoral race, for many reasons, is unlike any other. The vaccination pace is heating up, but COVID-19 still lingers as a threat, shrinking crowds and keeping commuters at home. Mass death rates, along with job losses, have taken a significant toll.
In 2013, the last time there was an open Democratic primary, candidates jostled for attention for many months, the race culminating in an election at the close of a turbulent summer. Hundreds of town halls, street festivals, parades, and rallies built to a satisfying crescendo. There were no fewer than three front-runners — City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, the scandalous Anthony Weiner, and, finally, de Blasio — plus a city comptroller’s race that featured Eliot Spitzer, the governor who resigned after he was caught soliciting a prostitute.
These days, the primary is in June, not September. After a federal judge ruled that congressional primaries be moved to June to allow sufficient time to get absentee ballots to military voters for the general election, the state legislature eventually decided to set all primaries in June, including the mayoral race. This year, such a condensed contest will probably benefit those who’ve already built up support bases around the city.
Yang is well-known to most New Yorkers from his long-shot presidential bid, but the rest of the field is not. The parades and parties aren’t yet materializing. There will be relatively few opportunities to meet voters face-to-face.
The race, many campaigns believe, may be decided wholly on screens — traditional cable television, digital advertising, and whatever online chatter can be generated.
“In this race right now, it’s really hard to do any level of retail campaigning,” says Peter Ragone, a former senior adviser to de Blasio and a veteran Democratic operative. “It’s really going to be, number one, are you on television? And are you creating any content yourself that has huge levels of engagement?”
A traditional Democratic primary in New York City is arrayed around huge parades, captivating stunts for television, and other mass events. All the candidates in 2013 pressed the flesh at the famous West Indian Day Parade in Brooklyn, with Weiner blaring music and shouting through a bullhorn on his blue and orange float. The Democrats all staged a sleepover at a public housing development with the Rev. Al Sharpton. Bill Thompson, the runner-up in the race, dragged reporters on a 24-hour tour of New York City, bringing them to a frozen meat locker in the pre-dawn hours.
Top candidates would routinely invite reporters along for trips to the subway and door-knocking expeditions. Every day promised another debate, a rally with supporters, or a visit to a community center, synagogue, or nursing home. Everywhere were the voters — it was an imperfect system, but ordinary people, on a given afternoon on Broadway or in the South Bronx, could run into the future mayor and strike up a conversation.
For the campaigns themselves, there was a feedback loop that is clearly missing now. A campaign event, if well-attended or interesting enough, could draw journalists and end up on the nightly news. This footage could be used for paid television ads a month later. Journalists, meanwhile, could attempt to gauge how well a candidate might be connecting with New Yorkers. Were they becoming increasingly recognizable? Did they have notable interactions with voters?
“In every other campaign I’ve worked on, the retail campaigning is front and center. Not only do you get to meet voters, reporters have something to cover, television news stories have rallies to get pictures of, and there’s this whole ecosystem of political communication that goes on apart from paid advertising,” says a top ad maker attached to one of the current mayoral campaigns. “This time around, because we have so little capacity to do old-fashioned handshakes and hugs and big rallies, there’s going to be a greater reliance on paid communication to reach voters — radio, digital, and direct mail.”
This isn’t the first campaign to be run during the pandemic. Last year, numerous candidates for state office in New York had to suspend operations and recalibrate for a June primary that came right after the peak number of coronavirus deaths in the city. Door-knocking was ditched and campaigns turned to glossy mailers, digital ads, and phone calls to reach as many voters as they could. But these were all small-scale campaigns, operating in districts where fewer than 20,000 people could vote. The mayoral primary is expected to draw anywhere from 700,000 to a million voters, with many campaigns planning for a spike from the middling 2013 turnout.
To make matters more challenging, voters have other pressing concerns. The pandemic is on the wane but remains a concrete, unsettling reality. Then there are the scandals surrounding Governor Andrew Cuomo, all-consuming online, in the newspapers, and on cable television. Granular, daily coverage of the mayoral race — the type seen in 2013 — has been far less evident. “All of our attention is drawn to stuff that isn’t the mayoral race,” said Micah Lasher, campaign manager for Scott Stringer, the city comptroller and one of the leading candidates.
The top campaigns are gearing up for heavy cable TV expenditures in the months to come in the hope of breaking through. Most of the campaigns expect to dedicate a far larger share of their spending on television than they would have in a more ordinary year. Others, like the progressive Dianne Morales, who reported that she just qualified for public matching funds, are leaning heavily into digital campaigning, rapidly accruing online followings.
One of the mayoral candidates, the financial executive Ray McGuire, is not participating in the public matching funds system at all, a move that will allow him to spend as much as he wants — those abiding by the Campaign Finance Board’s regulations receive generous matching funds in return for adhering to a strict spending cap — but also permit his rivals to spend more as well. A spokesman for the CFB said a determination on whether to raise the cap in the race will be made after April 26, the final deadline for candidates to join the matching funds program.
The system is designed to incentivize small-donor giving. While a mayoral campaign can receive a $2,000 check, only donations up to $250 are eligible to be matched, amplifying the power of a $25 or $50 donation. Based on the CFB’s criteria, all participating campaigns will be able to spend at least several million more. The current cap, at about $7.3 million, rises to $10,929,000 if a nonparticipating candidate spends at least $3,643,000. (Surpassing $21,858,000, which the billionaire Michael Bloomberg routinely did, would mean lifting the cap entirely.)
McGuire is no billionaire, but he has already spent more than $3.7 million. Raising the cap would most benefit the candidates who have raised enough to take advantage of it: Yang, Stringer, Eric Adams, and former de Blasio counsel Maya Wiley, whose campaign has recently reached the matching threshhold. Stringer and Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, have already banked more than $6 and $7 million respectively.
For campaigns, TV advertising is the least efficient but most effective way of reaching a broad swath of voters. Enough older Democrats are still watching CNN and MSNBC every day, as well as local stations like NY1. The ads cannot be perfectly tailored or targeted like digital solicitations on Facebook — a resident of New Jersey can end up seeing a 30-second spot for a mayoral candidate — but they can reach, on a given day, hundreds of thousands or millions of people.
It is all exceedingly expensive: a strong ad buy can easily run $1 million a week. With multiple candidates spending millions to purchase ads, there’s a fear of being drowned out. At the same time, not being there carries great risk, with a rival hogging precious airtime. A Democrat attempting to break into the top tier, Shaun Donovan, a veteran of the Obama and Bloomberg administrations, has already been spending on weekly TV ads. (Outside Super PACs are also stepping up for Donovan and McGuire.)
[related_posts post_id_1=”713938″ /]
To complicate the picture in 2021, well-funded candidates will be targeting popular connected TV services such as Roku, Hulu, and Apple TV, which were barely part of the mix in 2013. De Blasio won that race eight years ago for many reasons, including Weiner’s implosion and de Blasio’s own disciplined, anti-Bloomberg messaging, but television played a decisive role. De Blasio was prescient, dedicating a larger share of his campaign spending to television advertising than his rivals and foregoing direct mail. Years later, the “Dante” ad is still discussed in mythic terms: how 30 seconds of de Blasio’s biracial son talking about his father’s promise to “really break from the Bloomberg years” captivated Democratic voters and entered the popular culture.
Most ads don’t carry such emotional impact — at best, they may introduce a candidate, make an argument, or attack a rival. Yang is the public polling leader, and could be, in the weeks to come, the focus of negative advertising, particularly if a wealthy interest group or labor union aligned with a rival decides to spend against him.
“It’s not a paper endorsement,” says Kyle Bragg, the president of the influential building workers’ union, 32BJ SEIU. “Our members are super engaged voters.” 32BJ, like several other large unions in the city, is backing Adams, who is shaping up to be Yang’s top rival. Yang has shunned negative campaigning thus far, while Adams has criticized Yang for leaving the city in the early stages of the pandemic. Some of the Adams-supporting unions could train their fire at Yang if they view him as a durable threat.
To drive media coverage, Yang has relied on his Twitter feed, with 2 million followers, and, unlike most of his rivals, frequent in-person campaign stops. Recently, he has started appearing with opponents at events, like the press conference in Harlem to promote an app for small businesses envisioned by Kathryn Garcia, a Democratic contender and the former Department of Sanitation Commissioner. These sorts of team-ups have grown more common as candidates vie to be second choices for voters who can now rank up to five candidates. According to Yang’s campaign, media turnout was much higher than a typical press conference, thanks to the unusual nature of a multi-candidate appearance.
In 2013, one of de Blasio’s fiercest rivals in the early months was John Liu, the city comptroller at the time. Liu was renowned for his vigorous campaign schedule, appearing at as many as a dozen rallies, block parties, and subway stops a day. Now a state senator, and happily watching the race from the sidelines, Liu says the candidates must learn to adapt to the new normal: lots of Zoom, lots of TV, and a lot of time online.
And get used to not being the center of attention.
“It’s New York City. At what given moment is there not a whole lot of shit going down?” Liu asks. “In 2013, we had months of the Weiner circus. I think candidates can be thankful they don’t have to deal with that.” ❖
In conversations with elected officials, political operatives, labor leaders, donors, and those who have waded in and out of the Albany muck for the last decade, this has been the overriding theme. Besieged by two separate scandals, one related to multiple sexual harassment allegations against him and another tied to his oversight of nursing homes during the COVID-19 pandemic, Cuomo is increasingly unlikely to seek a fourth term and could be forced from office if opposition continues to grow against him.
Few of his traditional allies have spoken up in his defense. At the highest echelons of state politics, there is chatter about how long Cuomo can really hang on, with a state budget deadline in less than 30 days. At the most critical time of year, when tens of billions of dollars in state spending are usually dictated by Cuomo, his position is growing untenable.
“Andrew Cuomo is definitely going to try to hold on as long as he can. He’s going to be clinging onto the office by his fingernails but he may not be able to,” says one influential labor leader, who asked to remain anonymous. “He’s not going to be able to recover. The thing is, even when he doesn’t see it, other people already see it, they’re already accepting that. I heard people talking about who’s going to be lieutenant governor, the presumption being that such a question will have to be dealt with shortly.”
“I think he’s done,” says another high-ranking Democrat. “All I get are phone calls about his done-ness. You can’t make three enemies a week for 10 years and hope to survive. People who were close to him are like, ‘Andrew Cuomo, who’s that?’”
These days, Cuomo consults with Bill Mulrow, a Blackstone advisor who once served as secretary to the governor and remains a close confidant. The fear in Cuomo’s orbit is that more stories about sexual assault allegations are coming. Another allegation — another damning anecdote or photograph — could quickly end his career.
If Cuomo is forced to resign, he will be the second governor to do so since 2008. It was then that Eliot Spitzer, just one year into his tenure, resigned in the midst of a prostitution scandal. When a governor exits, a lieutenant governor takes over — in this case, the next governor, through 2022 at least, would be Kathy Hochul, a little-known Buffalo politician with no base in New York City and its surrounding suburbs, where most Democratic voters reside.
[related_posts post_id_1=”91092″ /]
In such a scenario, Hochul would likely be a caretaker governor, pressured out of running for re-election just like David Paterson, Spitzer’s successor. The leading contender for next year, at this point, is Letitia James, the state attorney general now investigating Cuomo. State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli has also been floated as a possible candidate.
Cuomo’s downfall has been swift and remarkable. The most powerful governor in New York since Nelson Rockefeller, Cuomo dominated the affairs of his state like few others, drawing on an endless reserve of loyalty, admiration, and fear.
State elected officials do not have term limits. And Cuomo, famous and undeservedly popular after presiding over the second largest coronavirus death toll in America, seemed as close to immortal as any politician could be. He had, at various points in the last year, appeared on the covers of Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone, won an Emmy award, and been feted by the likes of Ellen DeGeneres, Stephen Colbert, and Trevor Noah, who all declared themselves “Cuomosexuals.”
Not only was Cuomo running for a fourth term in 2022, he was all but guaranteed to win it, surpassing his father, Mario, who led the state for 12 years. His favorability ratings were declining from their pandemic-induced high — he had neared, in one poll, a soaring 80 percent — but he was still, as of January, trundling onward, banking almost $17 million, with far more expected in the coming months.
These days, Cuomo is in hiding. He has no public schedule and hasn’t taken questions from the press in more than a week. He is reeling from three credible sexual harassment allegations, two from former aides.
One said he forcibly kissed her, which he denies. Another said he had inappropriate conversations with her this year, asking whether she was having sex with other people, whether she would have sex with older men, and telling her that he was lonely. Cuomo issued a statement affirming at least some of her account, acknowledging “some of the things I have said have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation. To the extent that anyone felt that way, I am truly sorry about that.” (The woman, Charlotte Bennett, rejected the quasi-apology.)
A third woman, who had never met him before, said he made unwanted advances on her at a wedding in 2019, placing his hands on her cheeks and asking if he could kiss her. The interaction was photographed, the woman clearly uncomfortable. Cuomo has not issued a specific comment in response.
As James, the state attorney general and an erstwhile ally of Cuomo, probes the allegations — the governor was rebuffed when he requested a former federal judge, who had served as a law partner with an old top aide in his administration, investigate them — Cuomo is facing down calls for his resignation.
[related_posts post_id_1=”725745″ /]
At the minimum, Cuomo is likely to hang on as long as James is investigating. Jay Jacobs, the chairman of the State Democratic Party, an entity Cuomo wholly controls, said on Tuesday that “it is both premature and unfair for anyone to opine on the outcome until that investigation is completed and the results reported.” Voice requests for comment sent to Governor Cuomo’s press office have gone unanswered.
But most people in Albany expect the report, when issued, to be deeply damaging to Cuomo. It is not known when it will be finished.
The sexual assault allegations burst into view as Cuomo was already on the defensive from an unrelated, and equally serious, scandal: his decision to withhold data on nursing home coronavirus deaths from state lawmakers, which appears to have prompted a new FBI probe. A state legislator who had been leading the charge on the nursing home issue, Ron Kim, went public with wild threats Cuomo made against him over the phone, revealing for everyday people what political insiders had long known: Cuomo can be, and often is, a sociopathic bully behind closed doors.
On Monday, a dam seemed to break, with a wide array of city, state, and federal elected officials calling for Cuomo to step down. On Tuesday, the progressive Working Families Party, a longtime enemy of Cuomo’s, said he should resign.
“To me, the photo in the New York Times article was very damaging and particularly for those of us who are women, who have been in those similar situations, we know how terrible and small men make us feel with that dominant behavior,” says State Senator Jessica Ramos, one of the Democrats who called for Cuomo to step down. “The photo just shows how Cuomo sees women as accessories to his ego, how his narcissism really does go far and beyond the second floor [the executive chamber in Albany].”
Harvey Epstein, a Manhattan state assemblyman who says Cuomo “just has to step aside,” can’t imagine how Cuomo can effectively govern anymore, with negotiations over a pivotal, pandemic-era budget looming.
“I have no idea how this budget gets negotiated,” Epstein says. “It is not good for Democrats, our city, our state, and our nation to have the governor involved in all this controversy.”
What can make Cuomo quit? In New York, power resides in a few overlapping sectors. There are the millionaires and billionaires who have lavishly donated to all of Cuomo’s campaigns, allowing him to shatter fundraising records. CNBC reported on Tuesday that many of these donors, concentrated in the real estate and financial sectors, are pausing their donations, waiting at least for the outcome of the attorney general’s investigation.
If donations dry up for Cuomo, he will be severely impaired if he attempts to campaign for a fourth term next June. Beyond the corporate sector, there is organized labor and powerful interest groups, like the Greater New York Hospital Association, who have all been reliable, if transactional, backers of the governor.
If the heavyweight unions, particularly 1199 SEIU, the healthcare workers’ union that is the state’s largest, abandoned Cuomo, he would likely be hobbled to the point where finishing up his third term, let alone running for another, would be impossible.
Finally, there are the two legislative leaders, Carl Heastie and Andrea Stewart-Cousins. Neither are overly fond of Cuomo—few in Albany are — but both have been deferential to him throughout the pandemic. That is changing, as each move to revoke his emergency powers.
Heastie, the speaker of the 150-member Assembly, may be the most important Democrat of all, because it’s in his chamber where any impeachment proceedings would be initiated. A taciturn leader, Heastie has been calculating what, exactly, he should do next. When Spitzer resigned in 2008, it was partially over the threat of impeachment. The powerful speaker at the time, Sheldon Silver, informed the governor he had the votes to bring charges and end his career.
The glue that bound Cuomo’s machine was fear. He operated, in the purest sense, from Machiavelli’s dictum that it is better to be feared than loved. Over the last decade, he publicly and privately denigrated many of the politicians and labor leaders who may now decide his fate, in part because he simply could—everyone, in Cuomo’s universe, always needed to be reminded of their place.
But what will happen when none of these people are afraid of Cuomo anymore? There is no lingering goodwill, no loyalty tied to the implicit transaction — I am powerful, and I can choose either to help you or destroy you.
“I think he is going to see there is no future in Albany for him,” the labor leader says. ❖
On the afternoon of October 2, 1935, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, a silver-plated shovel in hand, dug into the Midwood soil. He had some difficulty with the task, barely getting the shovel into the topsoil as police fought to keep excited students at bay.
In just a short amount of time, the students of Brooklyn College would have their own campus to rival the gems of the Ivy League. Situated on a leafy stretch of land that had, at various times, been home to a golf course, a farm, a football field, and a staging area for the Barnum & Bailey circus, the $5.5 million project was one of the most expensive of any — education-related at least — attempted in the United States at the time. “Whenever there is a new government construction,” La Guardia said that day, “there is always opposition to the site. You cannot have two sites for one public building, but the real estate people have not learned this yet.”
It was a remarkable expansion of a system that would come to be called the City University of New York, each school tuition-free. A year later, President Franklin Roosevelt arrived in a motorcade to lay the cornerstone for Brooklyn College’s gymnasium. The accomplishment belonged to both men: city and federal funds had built the college, with its landmark clocktower, state-of-the-art laboratories, and bucolic quadrangle.
Though the Great Depression had brought the nation to the brink of economic collapse, it also represented the birth of a social democracy that remains with us to this day. Social security, unemployment insurance, and a wide array of public works came to be.
New York City was no exception: It was here many dreams of the New Deal were at least partially realized, where new libraries, parks, hospitals, colleges, and hundreds of thousands of units of public housing burst from the ground in the 1930s and 1940s.
“New York had an unusually expansive conception of the role of the state — in this case the municipal government, in some ways, fulfilled the promises and vision of FDR late in his life that on the federal level never got fulfilled,” says Joshua Freeman, a labor historian at the CUNY Graduate Center.
The boom continued after World War II, with new funding for public hospitals, public schools, and public and subsidized housing. Welfare benefits increased under the liberal Mayor John Lindsay in the 1960s, as did job protections for the newly organized public sector unions. Though the banking and real estate titans of the era retained substantial clout, they could not curtail the generous social spending that had become, for New Yorkers, routine. But by the mid-1970s, fiscal mismanagement and a collapsing manufacturing base — the garment industry and others fled to cheaper, non-union states and eventually overseas — drove the city to near-insolvency, opening the door for new theories to dominate the old.
Neoliberalism — prioritizing lower taxes, reduced spending on the poor, and subsidies for large businesses — came into vogue, and never really left, as New York City mayors, Republican and Democratic alike, strove to ensure that real estate developers and financiers would find the city attractive for investment and profit. Michael Bloomberg, one of the richest men in the world, called New York a “luxury product.” Bill de Blasio, a self-identified progressive who backed Bernie Sanders for president, spent the end of his first term and the beginning of his second fighting to bring a taxpayer-subsidized Amazon headquarters to Queens. One of the most dominant companies on Earth was slated to receive several billion in tax breaks, though Amazon was worth as much as a trillion dollars. A broad coalition of local opposition sank the deal.
[related_posts post_id_1=”576813″ /]
This year’s mayoral race, which will be effectively decided in the June 22nd Democratic primary, may represent the first opportunity in a half-century to change course. The city’s Democratic electorate is more liberal than it has ever been, and groups such as the Democratic Socialists of America are ascendant in Brooklyn and Queens. Weary from the coronavirus pandemic, voters appear ready for change, sending a host of left-wing lawmakers to Albany and Washington last June.
The top candidates, in some sense, speak the new language. Scott Stringer, the city comptroller, promised that his mayoralty would “end the crushing cycle of speculation, eviction, and displacement — no more giving away the store to developers.” Andrew Yang wants to be the “anti-poverty” mayor, pitching a public bank and a cash-transfer program for some of the city’s poorest residents. Maya Wiley, who served as de Blasio’s counsel, has said she’d spend $10 billion to put 100,000 New Yorkers back to work. And others are pitching innovative answers, like former Obama and Bloomberg cabinet official Shaun Donovan’s plan to give every New Yorker a $1,000 “equity bond” at birth that could be worth $50,000, and accessed, upon high school graduation.
Yet the horizons, overall, remain somewhat diminished. Most debate continues to hover around returning New York to whatever pre-pandemic glory it enjoyed in 2019 — not radically advancing it in new directions.
Few candidates have proposed a policy as singularly compelling and feasible as what de Blasio touted when he first ran for mayor: a universal prekindergarten program, to be paid for by a tax on the rich. Though Governor Andrew Cuomo blocked the tax hike, de Blasio won state funding for the initiative, and by most metrics, it has been a lasting success: at least 70,000 students are enrolled in pre-K, up from 9,000 in 2013, Bloomberg’s final year. The program has become a national model, offering quality education and saving working-class families tens of thousands of dollars annually.
Pre-K was also the first major expansion of the city’s social state since the 1970s, argues Kim Phillips-Fein, author of Fear City, one of the definitive accounts of the fiscal crisis. “Much of what we value in New York is the result of public spending,” she says.
The great challenge NYC mayors have faced in modern times is how much their enormous city’s destiny is charted by the state and federal governments. State law forbids the city from raising its own income taxes without the legislature and the governor’s approval. Federal money, for decades now, has been relatively scarce, nothing like the largesse La Guardia enjoyed under Roosevelt.
Out of that period came the New York City Housing Authority — underfunded, mismanaged, and maligned today, but still a striking achievement. While most of the nation has razed its public housing, 400,000 poor and working-class New Yorkers still live there, safeguarded from unsustainable rent hikes.
Almost all of the mayoral candidates have promised to win more money for NYCHA, which has capital needs in the tens of billions, but they have been vague about their plans. There has been little talk of demanding that Joe Biden fund another New Deal for New York City, like La Guardia once did of the patrician Roosevelt, who initially had no inclination to create a public housing program for the five boroughs. No one has articulated a coherent strategy for whipping the votes of the city’s large House delegation and forcing them to make the implicit pro-city arguments that draw far fewer retweets than do broadsides against Ted Cruz and Marjorie Taylor Greene.
Healthcare is a federal issue, but no mayoral candidate has spoken extensively about creating a single-payer municipal healthcare system, or even the universal access to healthcare that uninsured people in San Francisco enjoy. Corey Johnson, the city council speaker, briefly floated the idea in 2018, but he is not running for mayor. In the depths of the Great Depression, La Guardia created a city-run health insurance plan for its own workers, one that still exists today as part of Emblem Health.
[related_posts post_id_1=”570921″ /]
La Guardia’s blind spot was race: NYCHA was segregated in its early years, and the Little Flower viciously targeted Japanese-Americans during World War II. Subsequent mayors were less retrograde, culminating with Lindsay, who had a large following in Black neighborhoods and, under pressure from gay activists, banned city agencies from discriminating against job candidates based on sexual orientation.
“If progressivism is a moving target, real leaders move the target,” says Joseph Viteritti, a public policy professor at Hunter College and the author of books on de Blasio and Lindsay.
On housing, the most progressive policy minds are still unconvinced that the mayoral candidates are campaigning effectively on solving the most fundamental problem: how to make the city affordable for renters and homebuyers, as it used to be for many decades of the 20th century.
A dramatic expansion of NYCHA occurred in tandem with major housing developments under the auspices of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, then a mutual nonprofit, which in the 1930s and 1940s built Parkchester in the Bronx and Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village in Manhattan. At first segregated — virulent racism undercut New York’s social democratic golden period — Parkchester was forced to open its doors after the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, and remains a racially diverse haven for the middle class to this day. (Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village were initially segregated as well.)
The Mitchell-Lama program, created in 1955, allowed low and middle-income New Yorkers to own their apartments, offering artificially low prices after state-subsidized developers seized land through eminent domain. Unions built affordable, attractive social housing for their members, including the famed co-ops in the Bronx and Electchester in Queens. Meanwhile, the rent-control and rent-stabilization programs expanded, capping annual increases on the rents of millions of apartments.
[related_posts post_id_1=”732343″ /]
“The housing movement has grown strong enough to get city politicians to say what we want them to say, but not strong enough to get them to do what we want them to do,” says Samuel Stein, a housing policy analyst at the Community Service Society and the author of Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State. “There is a real lack of middle-level analysis [from the candidates]: there’s very little idea how to get from here to there.”
On the surface, none of the mayoral candidates lack ambition when it comes to housing. In all new developments with ten or more units, Stringer would require a quarter to be permanently “low-income affordable” housing, and has advanced plans for building units on vacant city-owned land. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, another front-runner, has said the city must “rapidly build new affordable housing.” Dianne Morales, a former nonprofit executive who has cultivated a following among progressives, is calling for a universal rent-stabilization program and the expansion of community land trusts and banks.
But none have campaigned on reimagining programs like Mitchell-Lama on a far larger scale, so New Yorkers don’t have to sit on decades-long waiting lists to buy an apartment. Stein believes that the mayoral candidates need to start “thinking about housing not just as a market function the city is there to fix when there’s a market failure, but as a core part of what city government is there to do.”
The big opportunity the next mayor might have is to start buying out large, overleveraged landlords who have taken on too much debt and are no longer seeing a rapid escalation of their property values due to the pandemic. Tenant and nonprofit community groups, with the city and state’s help, could buy the properties and convert them into low-income social housing.
The City Council and State Legislature can pass laws that give tenants and community-based organizations a first opportunity at buying buildings when they’re put up for sale. When banks are ready to put an apartment building into foreclosure, they could first offer the debt in question to nonprofits at a discount. What’s still being determined is how many of these buildings are overleveraged—numbers are still being crunched—but housing analysts believe there are enough for a wide-scale conversion from predatory, for-profit housing into what many New Yorkers enjoyed at midcentury.
In addition, the next mayor could do a far better job of enlisting nonprofit developers to build housing affordable to the working class and poor, instead of chasing set targets that simply lead to the creation of more luxury housing, argues Ismene Speliotis, executive director of the Mutual Housing Association of New York. “You have to remove or diminish the profit motivator.”
Other than Morales, who is still a long-shot to win, all of the candidates have shied away from criticizing Cuomo, the Democratic governor who is probably the single biggest impediment to far-reaching social housing policy in New York. Cuomo, who has raised more than $12 million from the real estate industry since taking office, has opposed or been indifferent to strengthening tenant protections in the past, and has refused to consider canceling rent or bailing out tenants during the pandemic. He has opposed tax hikes on the wealthy that could raise revenue for city services.
New York City requires an activist, incredibly aggressive state government to build on the social democracy it once had. The state barely contributes to the upkeep of NYCHA and does not offer funding commensurate with the tax revenue the city generates. Additionally, the Big Apple has sent nearly $27 billion more in taxes annually to the federal government than it has gotten back in federal spending; independent analyses have found that the city is a healthy net contributor to the state’s finances as well. New York City is not merely a cultural crown jewel; it is the beating heart of a state that could not exist without it. “Whatever Washington does, it will not be adequate,” Viteritti says. “Albany cannot allow this period to pass without increasing taxes on people who can well afford it.” ❖
Before the plague came to the city, you could walk up to Gracie Mansion and touch your fingers to the cool brick of the walls surrounding the grounds.
Those days, like so much before the coronavirus, are long gone. The Upper East Side mansion, erected in 1799, sits behind NYPD barricades. The metallic gates are everywhere, cutting off the walking paths that used to invite visitors to the home of the mayor of New York City. Gracie resembles, a year into the pandemic, a fortress under siege.
On June 22, when the virus may well be less pervasive, Democrats in New York will choose their nominee for mayor. In our heavily Democratic city, this primary victory will be tantamount to election. And given the ease with which incumbents glide to a second term — the oft-maligned Bill de Blasio won his 2017 primary with nearly 75 percent of the vote and easily swatted away a Republican by 38 points — this election will effectively determine who gets to govern the largest city in America for the next eight years. (The last one-term mayor, David Dinkins, left office in 1993.)
There may be no more important election — in this city, at least — in modern history. Not since the city nearly went bankrupt in 1975 has it been so close to the brink. COVID-19 has killed more than 27,000 of our fellow citizens. The restaurant, tourism, and hospitality industries are decimated. The true unemployment rate, some experts estimate, could exceed 20 percent. The murder rate is up all over America, and here in New York it has soared 41 percent over 2019. This past summer, protests against police brutality shook the city during some of the tensest days and nights in memory, drawing savage crackdowns from an NYPD that de Blasio — a left-leaning Democrat — has repeatedly failed to reform and discipline.
The Gracie Mansion barricades went up around the time of those hot, violent nights, as de Blasio, known for his stubborn workouts at the Park Slope Y and his refusal to show up anywhere on time, seemed to retreat from his city. While the gangly mayor has real, lasting accomplishments — he created a universal prekindergarten program and helped pass laws increasing the minimum wage and guaranteeing paid sick leave — he has been mocked and derided for his quixotic national ambitions and for failing, along with Governor Andrew Cuomo, to contain the spread of COVID-19.
The city, laid so low, may be even more immediately beleaguered than it was in the 1970s, when a fiscal crisis triggered mass layoffs and enormous cuts to social services. “Here the challenge is much greater,” says City Comptroller Scott Stringer, one of the front-running candidates. “We have no tourists, no arts and culture, no restaurant or dining to speak of. This is unprecedented territory.”
A New York City mayoral race is like none other. Candidates crisscross neighborhoods as large as small cities, courting varied racial, ethnic, and interest groups that can diverge wildly in their needs and wants. There is a Hasidic vote, a Chinese vote, an Afro-Caribbean vote, and an MSNBC liberal vote. There are dozens of labor unions, civic organizations, churches, block associations, and Democratic clubs that all want to feel that the mayor will represent them, and often, them alone, even though the primary has drawn close to 1 million voters in the past.
“Running for mayor involves having an understanding of these different communities, having some people who have some ties in these communities and understanding issues that matter to them—and that does create some whiplash for candidates,” says Lis Smith, a prominent Democratic operative who worked on de Blasio’s 2013 campaign. “One day you’re talking to a group that’s very progressive, very liberal, and the next day you’re talking to a group of voters that are more fiscally conservative, socially conservative. There are a fair amount of anti-abortion Democrats.”
The pandemic, of course, has upended all of this. The last time there was an open mayoral race, candidates had months to glad-hand at parades, block parties, and Sunday services, slowly building name recognition as voters spotted them on street corners and subway platforms. Once an unknown, de Blasio himself had to cajole commuters at the subway, hunching his six-six frame to give his elevator pitch to the people rushing by.
These days, the candidates are locked into Zoom forums. Andrew Yang, one of the top contenders, hustled across the city in January, staging walking tours and riding the subway with reporters in tow.
On February 2, he announced that he had tested positive for COVID-19. His diagnosis may well convince the other contenders to avoid crowd contact, at least for now. “The last time I had a flu no one gave a shit,” Yang joked.
Pandemic campaigning, generally, has meant increased phone banks, more glossy campaign mailers, and additional digital and TV ads to replace door-to-door canvassing. For candidates without built-in followings, this is cutting down on opportunities to meet voters and demonstrate momentum, either with a big rally, a strong showing at a parade, or even a staged arrest, cameras flashing.
“I’m still a believer, as far as citywide races, that regular cable TV is important,” says Jerry Skurnik, a longtime Democratic consultant. “That’s why de Blasio won eight years ago. It seems to me that TV is even more important this year. I’m sitting home right now — the TV is on.”
More than 30 candidates, remarkably, have registered to run with the city’s Campaign Finance Board, though there are only five or six Democrats who have a viable chance of seizing the nomination and breezing to victory in the fall. Much of this has to do with money: A competitive mayoral race costs millions of dollars, and only a handful of Democrats will be able to raise and spend that kind of cash.
Two of the candidates, Stringer and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, have been enmeshed in the city’s political machinery for decades, taking the most traditional route to power.
Stringer, who has been the city’s comptroller since 2014, is a Manhattanite with a base on the white, liberal Upper West Side. He is the undisputed endorsement king — three members of Congress, including the newly elected Bronx firebrand Jamaal Bowman, are backing Stringer’s candidacy, along with a deep roster of state lawmakers. Stringer has been courting the city’s resurgent left, criticizing power elites like the real estate industry and proposing an ambitious plan to phase out all fossil fuel infrastructure citywide. Once a more risk-averse, clubhouse politician, Stringer is hoping he can woo progressives in the primary, recreating a version of the playbook that got de Blasio to Gracie Mansion in the first place.
Adams, unlike Stringer, does not chest-thump over progressive credentials. A former state senator, police captain, and Republican, Adams proudly fundraises from the real estate developers loathed on the left. A power broker in Brooklyn’s Black neighborhoods, Adams has been a muscular voice on police reform, pitching an idea to let community groups select police commanders. He said he would publicize the names of police officers being monitored for bad behavior. (Adams did not return multiple requests for comment.)
Stringer, who has promised to “manage the hell” out of the city, has banked close to $6 million for the race so far; Adams has about $6.6 million. Both of them are expected to be prolific fundraisers in the months to come.
But every mayoral race, it seems, has a disruptor. In 2001, a little-known, charisma-challenged billionaire named Michael Bloomberg defied the Democratic establishment, winning the mayoralty in the wake of the September 11 attacks. Bloomberg triumphed on the Republican line, all but impossible in today’s city, unless you can spend $100 million, which is out of reach for all of the current candidates.
In 2013, horrifying entrenched Democrats while delighting every newspaper in town, Anthony Weiner plunged into the Democratic primary, fresh off the first of many sexting scandals. Before his implosion, he was a polling leader, drawing huge crowds in the streets. At the same time, Eliot Spitzer, the former governor felled in a prostitution scandal, was running for city comptroller, whipping up a singular frenzy around a municipal contest.
In 2021, there are no black swan candidates like Weiner and Spitzer, but there is a famous outsider: Yang, the entrepreneur who gained widespread recognition running for president on a platform to give $1,000 to every American every month, forever. Mayoral candidate Yang cannot propose anything so ambitious — his current cash-transfer proposal is micro-targeted to very poor households, and would cost $1 billion annually out of an $88 billion budget — and he has mixed worthy progressive goals, such as a public bank for New York City, with the more curious, including a casino on Governors Island that would be forbidden under a federal deed restriction.
“I’m running for mayor for one reason and one reason only: I believe I can help New York City recover from this crisis faster than others,” Yang says. He is chasing the progressive vote, like Stringer, but he is also hoping to cross over everywhere, knitting together moderates and exciting the city’s burgeoning Asian communities. Before testing positive, he took to street-level campaigning with particular gusto, and is easily recognized when he ventures out.
“There’s like a real need in New York to have someone who people have a sense of pulling for them,” Yang continues, pitching his candidacy, “and one of the things happening in New York City right now — the nature of the race is a lot of noise — to me, as long as New Yorkers are happy to see me, I’m pumped to fight for them.”
The bubbly Yang is, more than any other candidate, resented by the rival campaigns, who treat him with a mixture of derision and fear. His top consultant, Bradley Tusk, advised Bloomberg’s failed presidential campaign and grew rich advising Uber, drawing ire from the left.
There are other formidable contenders: Maya Wiley, a former counsel for the de Blasio administration and a civil rights lawyer who rose to greater fame as an MSNBC analyst, is seeking to become New York’s first female mayor. (Wiley declined an interview request.)
And the city’s Wall Street titans specifically recruited Ray McGuire, a Citigroup executive, to run for mayor; he has raised nearly $5 million from business heavyweights in a short amount of time, vaulting himself into the top tier.
“I don’t owe anybody anything,” McGuire says, boasting of his status as a first-time candidate. “Zero. I’m unbought.” Celebrities such as Spike Lee and Samuel L. Jackson are in McGuire’s corner. As a Black business executive, he has spoken openly about racial justice and coalition building between the city’s millionaire class and leftists who seek to check their power.
Some on the left are hoping Dianne Morales, a former nonprofit executive, can catch fire. Though the Democratic Socialists of America, an emerging power center in New York politics, are not formally backing any candidate, members of the organization have been drawn to Morales, who has called for slashing the NYPD budget in half and redirecting the funds to social services.
“I kind of reject the idea that we can’t talk about decreasing this sort of system that criminalizes poverty for Black and brown people because people are going to be unsafe. Black and brown folks are already unsafe,” Morales says. “We need to be morally committed to people’s needs to live in dignity.”
And there is no shortage of technocrats: de Blasio’s former Sanitation commissioner and interim NYCHA chair, Kathryn Garcia, and ex-HUD secretary and federal OMB commissioner Shaun Donovan are hoping to vault into the first tier. Each boasts of governmental experience that outstrips the rest of the field. “I am absolutely the most qualified,” Garcia argues. “I think I am the only person in the race who really understands what this job is. This is a day-to-day, deliver for the people job.”
Donovan, who was also a housing commissioner under Michael Bloomberg, drew attention when he proposed giving every city child a $1,000 “equity” bond that could grow to $50,000 by the time of their high school graduation. “With all due respect to the other candidates, no one else has ever run a four trillion dollar budget,” he says, referring to his tenure at the federal level. “No one else has sat side by side with Dr. Fauci in the Oval Office or Situation Room.”
For the first time, a mayoral election will be held with ranked-choice voting. In the old days, candidates clawed for slivers of the electorate. If no one won 40 percent of the vote, there was a citywide runoff between the top two candidates. These were vicious, if low turnout, affairs.
Ranked-choice allows voters to rank their top five candidates. Getting second- and third-place votes matter. The runoff is no more. No one quite knows how this will impact one candidate or another, although everyone has a theory about why they are the most well suited for the new era. It’s already produced coalitions: Stringer and Morales shared a co-endorser, a state senator from the Bronx, and some Democrats are speculating that Stringer wants to elevate Morales to undercut other progressive rivals, including Wiley. Adams, meanwhile, has aggressively opposed the system entirely, on the premise that the voter education hasn’t been there to make it happen effectively.
The race, like the city, is in flux. There is no candidate with a clear claim to the nomination. There is no single woman or man with the best argument, either — not with multiple technocrats, a citywide elected official, an unorthodox figure of national renown, a well-regarded civil rights attorney, and many others seeking the prize of governing one of the world’s great cities.
Come 2022, inordinately challenging decisions will have to be made. New York will be emerging, slowly, from pandemic hell. At some point, the new mayor will have to lower the barricades — metaphorically and literally — and enter the streets where the city, ravaged by plague, longs for compelling leadership.
“We have to get it right this time,” says Stringer. “We have to have a reset.” ❖